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My beautiful seder plate from Israel

This year, sadly, there are no spring celebrations. COVID-19 has taken them away from us.

This year, sadly, there are no spring celebrations. COVID-19 has taken them away from us.

The very last public gathering I went to was the celebration of Purim at my synagogue on March 9th (not technically spring yet, but the weather was springlike). Purim is such a great holiday, the Jewish version of Halloween, where not only the kids but even the adults are expected to dress up in costume. My rabbi and cantor coordinate their costumes, which are always very clever. The tradition is that when reading the Megillah the readers take a big chug of whiskey or schnapps after every chapter, so by the end they are pretty tipsy. Wine is sold by the confirmation class, and all the adults are encouraged to get tipsy too. I don’t remember the drinking part from my childhood, but I do remember the hamentaschen. Delicious pastries in the triangular shape of Haman’s hat, with different fillings. When I was a child, my favorite flavors were prune and poppyseed. They still have the poppyseed, and I still love it, but nobody seems to make the prune ones any more. Too bad. Anyway, the event was wonderful this year, as always, and the hamentaschen were delicious. The purimspiel is a funny play (at our shul always a musical) that acts out the Book of Esther. This year it had a wild west theme, because we are celebrating the 170th anniversary of the founding of our synagogue, which is the oldest one west of the Mississippi.

The week that followed was when everything shut down.

Now it is Passover, and I know that many people are having Zoom seders, but I didn’t have the heart for it. The woman who normally caters the Second Night Seder at our synagogue was offering to make seder meals for anyone who wanted, and even to deliver them to our houses. So we ordered a seder-for-two from her, and the food was not as good as I expected. The matzah ball soup was too bland and needed lots of salt. The Mediterranean chicken was a little dry (loved the capers though!) and the potato kugel and spinach feta matzah pie were okay, but it all would have tasted better if we had been sitting at a long table with a bunch of friends or relatives. The best food was the charoset, which I made myself, as I do every year, from a recipe that I copied on a small piece of paper out of a cookbook that I looked at in a bookstore about thirty years ago (but was too cheap to buy). As for all of the ritual, and the many pages of the Haggadah, we mostly skipped over it. Except for the recitation of the plagues, which has always been my favorite part of the seder. As we say the name of each plague, in Hebrew and in English, we dip a finger (generally the pinkie) in our wine glass and splatter it on our plate.

Blood – splat
Frogs – splat
Lice – splat
Beasts – splat
Cattle Disease – splat
Boils – splat
Hail – splat
Locusts – splat
Darkness – splat
Slaying of the First-Born Son – splat

At the end, you have a lot of wine on your plate. But you are not supposed to wipe it off. Nor are you supposed to lick the finger that was splattering the wine, because that would be like eating the plagues. I guess the logical thing would be to use a different plate, but we always just put the food on top of it and pretend it isn’t there. I would be interested to know what other people do.

Obviously, this year when we speak of plagues, COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind, a true plague that is affecting the entire world. As I mentioned in an earlier story, last month my house was also afflicted with an invasion of ants. All I could think was that this was the second plague, and we had better buckle up for the eight more that would be coming. We have now almost entirely conquered the ants, after using three different types of ant poison, and I am hopeful that there won’t be additional plagues in the near future. COVID-19 should count for at least nine plagues!

When I was growing up, I don’t remember ever having a seder for Passover. My parents and grandparents were very strongly Jewish culturally, but not really into the ritual. We did eat matzah and avoid bread for the eight day period, but we didn’t clean out all the chametz like you are supposed to do. And truth be told, my mother usually bought the egg and onion matzah, because it tastes better, even though it is not technically kosher for Passover.

It wasn’t until I had my own family, joined a synagogue, and sent my children to religious school, that I started paying attention to the rituals you are supposed to follow on all the holidays. Over the years we were in a couple of different Chavurahs (friendship groups), with other families that had children around the same ages as ours, and we would have seders with them every year. We always had a great time and drank lots of wine while telling the story of how we were slaves in Egypt. Our last Chavurah broke up when one couple got divorced and another couple retired and moved to the north coast. After that we started going to the Second Night Seder at the synagogue. Last year we had a wonderful seder with a college friend and her husband, who had recently moved to Sacramento, and a crowd of their children, grandchildren, and friends. But this year, of necessity, just the two of us.

There are many songs that are part of the Passover ritual, and my favorite is Dayenu. The title translates as “it would have been enough.” It talks about all the blessings God bestowed on the Jewish people, and says that even one of them would have been enough. “If you had brought us out of Egypt and not carried out judgments against [the Egyptians], it would have been enough. If you had carried out judgments against them and not against their idols, it would have been enough.” And so on, for fifteen verses (although most Haggadahs I have seen have only a couple of verses). At our choir zoom on Wednesday night, we were trying to come up with new words for Dayenu to fit the current situation. If you had saved us from this awful President it would have been enough. If you had given us this President, but had saved us from the Supreme Court, it would have been enough. If you had given us the terrible Supreme Court but had saved us from COVID-19, it would have been enough. Still a work in progress, but you get the idea.

At the end of the seder it is customary to say “Next year in Jerusalem.” I think this year everyone is saying “Next year all in the same room.”

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy, next year may we all be safe and sound of mind, body and spirit and able to celebrate with family and friends, Dayenu.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    What a beautiful story, Suzy (other than, of course, the disappointing food this year). Religious ignoramus that I am, I particularly enjoyed your explanation of the ritual with the wine and the plagues which I had never heard of before.

    I equally loved your explanation of the Dayenu. What a wonderfully humble song (and sentiment). Plus, I love what you did to update the Dayenu to these modern times. Though I am not sure I could be so humble in this context. I not only want to be saved from Trump, but from SCOTUS, Barr, the Republican Senate, the NRA, Putin….. You get the idea.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. I actually had started my story midweek (a la Betsy), and had written that the food was delicious, then had to revise after we ate it! You should try doing that plagues ritual – it’s surprisingly cathartic to splatter red wine on a plate! As to Dayenu, the original has 15 verses, so maybe that would be enough to cover all the evils we want to be saved from.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I sympathize with your dilemma. As you will read, Dan doesn’t care a whit about any of the holidays, so if we aren’t invited out, we don’t do seder here at all. This year, we were supposed to be in San Jose, visiting Vicki, the Coronavirus scotched that plan, so I was fortunate when my brother emailed an invitation to Zoom along with him, which I’ve written about.

    I LOVE the verses your choir added to Dayenu! I’ll sing along with those any day! Chag Sameach!

  4. Marian says:

    Suzy, the “splat” after each plague is a wonderful touch, as is the new Dayenu. We did the same thing with the plate where the wine dripped. And, we were told not to lick our fingers, which we had dipped in the cup to splash the wine. Your conclusion is perfect, it would be a blessing to be in the same room for the next Seder.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, my kids always loved to make a big splat after each plague. I hasten to add that we gave them grape juice. Although when I was a kid I remember drinking Manischewitz wine, and I still like it for nostalgia’s sake.

  5. Suzy, you write with such warmth! You took me on an emotional journey that had me choked up at “This year, of necessity, just the two of us” and then laughing out loud by the end of the next paragraph. Your story was a joy to read.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    What a beautiful seder plate, Suzy! And your picture of hamentaschen makes my mouth water. Missed that this year too, as we were already getting nervous about shopping and attending crowded services in early March. We also use the same plate after the plagues, but at one of our Zoom seders, my granddaughter added the 11th plague of coronavirus. I would love to get the lyrics your choir came up with for the 2020 version of Dayenu. Next year in someone’s home — Zoom seders are kind of depressing. Great story!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for noticing the hamentaschen, Laurie. I was still totally blasé on March 9th, as I described in my earlier story. We all hugged and handed each other hamentaschen with no concern. You were obviously more alert to what was happening, and smart to be nervous.

      Also thanks for answering my question about using the plate with the plague splatters on it. I suspect that’s what everyone does. Sorry to disappoint, but my choir didn’t actually come up with a new Dayenu, we were just playing with the idea that night.

  7. Thanks for sharing this Suzy. As a Parent participation preschool teacher with a diverse family base, I have always appreciated a window on others’ family traditions. In my mind, before that, all religions were megalith blocks of ritual and belief. Your piece gave such a sweet window, especially of how traditions flex, move and yet remain the same throughout life.

    • Suzy says:

      I’m glad you liked it, January. Betsy is much better at explaining the traditions to those who are not familiar with them, whereas I just describe them as they are observed (or not) by my family.

  8. John Zussman says:

    This story, though acknowledging the dark days we live in, made me smile in several ways: your Purim celebration, the splats, and of course the updated Dayenu. But I have to amend your conclusion: Next year all in the same room—under a different, more competent and compassionate President.

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